Books · Colonisation · Whiteness & racism

cold war medicine

CeremonyCeremony by Leslie Marmon Silko
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

“There are some things I have to tell you,” Betonie began softly. “The people nowadays have an idea about the ceremonies. They think the ceremonies must be performed exactly as they have always been done, maybe because one slip-up or mistake and the whole ceremony must be stopped and the sand painting destroyed. That much is true. They think that if a singer tampers with any part of the ritual, great harm can be done, great power unleashed.” He was quiet for a while, looking up at the sky through the smoke hole. “That much can be true also. But long ago when the people were given these ceremonies, the changing began, if only in the aging of the yellow gourd rattle or the shrinking of the skin around the eagle’s claw, if only in the different voices from generation to generation, singing the chants… At one time, the ceremonies as they had been performed were enough for the way the world was then. But after the white people came, elements in this world began to shift; and it became necessary to create new ceremonies. I have made changes in the rituals. The people mistrust this greatly, but only this growth keeps the ceremonies strong. She taught me this above all else: things which don’t grow are dead things. They are the things the witchery people want. Witchery works to scare people, to make them fear growth. But it has always been necessary, and more than ever now, it is. Otherwise we won’t make it. We won’t survive. That’s what the witchery is counting on: that we will cling to the ceremonies the way they were, and then their power will triumph, and the people will be no more.”

I found myself in the book, in the story about witch* people and how white settlers were created in a contest to show off the scariest thing possble. I’d already heard Thomas King’s version of this story, but it meant something else to me then, it had a different emphasis. In this story I myself come into being, a destroyer’s vampire ghost. From the backs of my thighs to the base of my spine to my stomach’s underside I felt a chill crawling up to my chest, I felt myself blur into the world, fibres of my being knitting into the half-poisoned London air. I am not outside this story. It has no borders. Its materials, its hero, Tayo, are only one cycle of the sun, one fold of the skein.

They live, these materials of the story, these people and lands, written with the clarity of morning light and changing rhythm of a dance that made me read slow, slow, fast, slow. Written with ferocity and calm. Some of what is real is what I know, and some I am not ready to know and have to pass over as mystery, magic shaken out of a story like sand from a shawl. The teachers with their books of science trying to shout over everyone sound so reedy, weak and distant. They are inside too, not encircling nature but encircled. Outside Plato’s cave is the cave of the sky. But as usual I am getting carried away, let me stay earthbound, let me stay with our storyteller who is making the dry land of the southwest so sonorous with its mesas and arroyos, cousins so distant from the drizzle-rinsed and misty hills that I know…

(view spoiler)

*in my culture many of the stories about witches are lies spread to prevent women from disrupting white male power as propagated through the church and state (the divine right of kings). As a feminist, and since in Britain ‘witches’ were often what Silko might call medicine people, those in touch with and learned in ways of healing that involved herb lore, an ethics of care and community, and practical wisdom derived from an oral tradition and personal experience of observing the cycles of nature, I myself am very fond of the word witch, and I appreciate the literature that seeks to rehabilitate it. This literature includes Phillip Pullman’s
His Dark Materials
series (feminists, give your teens these books)
Year of Wonders
by Geraldine Brooks and…
Room on the Broom
. It is significant that the witch people of Silko’s story are not gendered. The one who calls the horror into being is described thus: no one ever knew where this witch came from/which tribe/or if it was a woman or a man.

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